Sun, surf, mountains and rollercoasters: the Golden State is big and beautiful, whether you want to play on the beach, ride your way across California theme parks or camp in one of California’s national parks. The state’s size and variety of offerings mean that a California family holiday will require some solid preparation. Here are 11 tips and family-friendly travel hacks to help you design your family’s holiday with an eye toward keeping the fun quotient high and missed opportunities to a minimum.
Planning a Golden State road trip? Check out our special road trip tips for that too.
1. Pack and dress in layers. In Southern California, a sunny 21-degree day can feel like 26 degrees or hotter to people from elsewhere, while a cloudy 15-degree day can feel much chillier, thanks to ocean breezes. In Northern California (especially San Francisco) summer can mean a lot of morning fog and temperatures in the teens, before it warms up in the afternoon. All over the state, it’s a safe bet to dress in layers and keep a jumper, sweatshirt or light jacket in your day pack.
2. Don’t pack beach gear. Your hotel may have toys and gear on hand to borrow or hire. You can also buy body boards an easy-to-learn way to play in the surf for as little as $10 at any chemist or discount store near the beach. These are also budget-friendly places to pick up a bucket and a spade, sun cream, hats and flip-flops.
3. Maximise your time at the theme parks. Staying at one of the on-site hotels can get you early entry (usually an hour earlier than the scheduled opening time) but sometimes just buying your tickets online (at Universal Studios Hollywood) can get you an extra hour with shorter queues. Also, check the park’s website for express lane services (like Disneyland Resort’s Fastpasses) so that you can make the most of your time all day.
4. Expect (some) admission discounts. Children and teens often get in free or at a discount, at museums and other attractions around the Golden State. San Diego has a 'Kids Free October' programme that is valid at many museums and other attractions, including SeaWorld and LEGOLAND. That said, don’t expect much of a reduction at other theme parks or at other times. Full-price admission may start as low as age 10.
5. Measure your children. Before you commit to a theme park for the day, look at the rides page on its website to see the height minimums to make sure there are enough rides that your children will be able to enjoy. Also, get the lay of the land from the theme park’s online map to plot your day’s path efficiently and delay the onset of tired feet.
6. Book ahead for camping. National parks such as Yosemite have well-established schedules for opening up camping pitches for reservations and good spots can go fast (up to six months in advance). For last-minute pitches, check a park’s campsite online to find availability.
7. Don’t miss the Junior Ranger programmes at state and national parks. The free handouts and activities available at California national parks and state parks give children a fun, hands-on way to explore the park. At Lassen Volcanic National Park, for instance, the activity booklet lists different hot springs and volcanic rocks for kids to look for and tick off. At Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve, meanwhile, a nature-oriented bingo card motivates children to keep an eye out for lizards, meadowlarks and beetles, as well as California’s state flower. Ask for any handouts at the park’s visitor centre, or download them from its website.
8. Plan a skiing trip that moves at everyone’s pace. California ski resorts offer a wide range of age-specific lessons and activities—some with kids’ clubs that last half or full days, so that everyone gets plenty of time to ski or board at their own skill level. At Squaw Valley, for instance, about 65 per cent of the runs are suitable for beginner and intermediate skiers, and Sierra-at-Tahoe has an 11-acre learning terrain called Easy Street. Off-the-slope activities abound as well, like Mammoth’s beloved Woolly’s Tube Park, or the 9-metre climbing wall at Big Bear and Snow Summit’s Basecamp. Meanwhile, even if your children's Easter break falls as late as April, you’ll still find plenty of Californian snow.
9. Bring lots of sun cream. Beach days certainly call for a high SPF, but you’ll also need sun cream while skiing. California’s ski resorts are known for their blue skies, which results in plenty of reflection off the slopes.
10. Don’t assume that wine-tasting is off the table. Not all wineries and craft breweries welcome children, but many do, offering games, play areas and children's dining menus so that the family can enjoy a visit together. Check the individual wineries’ or breweries’ websites before you go to make sure kids will be welcome and happily occupied.
11. Don’t be afraid to take the children out for a nice meal. In California, cutting-edge restaurants are often not white-tablecloth–type places and many even have good kids’ menus—like the tamales and quesadillas at LA’s acclaimed Border Grill, or the prix fixe children's menu at San Francisco’s Rintaro, which Bon Appétit named one of the best restaurants of 2015. When in doubt, call in advance and ask when making a booking; most hotels keep lists of reputable babysitting services at the front desk and can help you hire a great sitter to come to your hotel room.
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